My (Brief) Life on Vancouver’s Skid Row

E Hasting Street (aka Skid Row)

Dressed in khaki shorts, trendy t-shirt and a baby blue bike helmet, I jump on my bike, with camera around my neck, and head to Vancouver’s skid row.  I wandered onto Hasting Street the pervious night in search of a late-night Chinese noodle shop.  What I found instead was drug deals taking place in front of me and residents smoking and injecting drugs openly.  The only other place I have seen anything like it was in Zurich in one particular block.  In Vancouver, the squalidity goes on for blocks and blocks . . . and it is crowded.

I imagine myself using the photos I will take today to tell the story of drug addiction in Canada.  A couple blocks in, the smell of old urine and used beer hits me like an epiphany.  The streets are dirty and filled with trash; apparent addicts in filthy bright-orange worker vests roam the streets.  I imagine the city gives them “jobs” that don’t ever get quite done.  I bike on.

Pay-by-the-hour Hotels Line the Street

I stop at a street corner where I can see up and down Hastings Street.  At 11am it is nearly as thick as the night before.  It feels like a bad remake of Night of the Living Dead; the citizens of this land shuffle down the street, some in torn and/or dirty clothes, vacant, almost dead expressions on their faces.  A transgender prostitute – with a bit of life in her – shouts “hello handsome.”  “Lookin’ good girl!” I yell back.  She smiles.  I bike on.

Another stop and I  encounter a man named Michael digging through the city-owned trash can.  He thinks I am an officer of the peace and, pointing down the street, tells me that someone stole a painting.  I tell him I am not the fuzz, but I don’t think he believes me.  A moment passes and Michael hands me a crumpled, hand written note titled “this is my inheritance.”  The collection of words make up sentences that don’t quite make sense. . . to me.  Still, I read it – out loud – out of respect.  I see that it doesn’t matter whether it makes sense to me, it is important to him that others see his heirloom.

To be honest, I am more interested in the couple sitting behind him on the street, grey skin, sunken cheeks, preparing something for a glass pipe.  I guess heroin, but ask Michael.  He looks down to avoid the question.  I step past him and say good morning to the twosome.  Neither look up at me, but go about their business.  I ask if I may take their picture – the woman says, again without looking at me, “I don’t want my picture taken today.”  I feel suddenly warm and as if I am intruding.  It feels like I am in someone else’s living room, but I see no furniture.  I bike on.

Another man on the street declines to have his picture taken.  The warmth I was feeling starts to expand from my belly into my chest – I identify the feeling: anxiety.  I look around; I am not welcome here – physically or energetically. My mind tries to justify my presence: I know what it is to fight the monkey on my back, to jones and to feel as though nothing else matters.  I see the battle scars on my own body and identify with the uninhabited faces I witness walking past me.  I am them and they are me: we are the same.

Looking down the Alley

But on the outside, I look like a tourist.  I feel like a tourist in that moment and, although I hate to admit it, I am.  I have come into someone else’s living room – their life – with the intention of capturing something exotic and taking it back to my own world.  I bike a block and then take my camera out to at least capture a street scene.  I get two snapped off when a rather tall man approaches me: “I don’t want my picture taken,” he says.  My heart beats faster, now I am feeling fear.  “I’m just taking them of the street,” I respond.  “Yes, but when you take a picture of the street, you take a picture of the people, and no one around here wants their picture taken.”  There is incredible clarity in his statement.  I finally get it: this is not where I belong; I am not invited. “Sorry, no disrespect meant, I’ll put it away.”  I roll a few feet on my bike and another man who witnesses the exchange tells me the residents of Hastings Street will “riot” if anyone takes a camera out.  He concludes ”it’s too bad, such nice architecture.”  I bike on.

A few blocks over and I am in the trendy part of Gastown.  Taking a quick bathroom break in Starbucks, I then head over to the Inuit Gallery where I see First Nations artwork in the range of $1000 – $25,000 CAD.  I fit more easily into this world than the one I was in 15 minutes ago.  Reflecting upon the difference between me and the people on Hasting Street I realize that I am able to bike, walk or drive away to more comfortable surroundings.  With this unexpected revelation comes immense gratitude for my life.  Thank you Universe for the amazing life I have today, yesterday and tomorrow!

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